Friday, January 4, 2013

2013 NFL Playoffs Potluck: Who gonna win?

The NFL playoffs are upon us, which means it's time to pontificate on who's going to win the Super Bowl. We decided to do a potluck and get authors here at Crossroads of the Interwebz to comment on each team and their potential chances of winning the big one.

AFC
#1 Seed: Denver Broncos, 13-3
Matt: I'm a big fan of the Broncos. Peyton Manning has had a great season. The Broncos also sport a great pass rush with Miller and Dumervil. The Broncos are the #2 team in terms of DVOA, so the advanced stats back them up as well. To top it all off, they have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. All of these together make the Broncos as solid a pick as any to win the Super Bowl.

Drew: It's hard to believe right now, but some observers did wonder whether the Broncos were making the right decision in jettisoning Tim Tebow in favor of Peyton Manning back in March after Manning had missed an entire season coming off four neck surgeries. That sounds quite silly now, as Manning very well could earn a fifth career NFL MVP award for his incredible comeback campaign in 2012 (68.6-percent completion rate, 4,659 yards, 37-11 TD-INT ratio, 105.8 QB rating). Manning also is operating with perhaps the strongest defense he's ever played with (third against both the pass and rush). As Matt observed, Von Miller is an incredible pass rusher (18.5 sacks, six forced fumbles) and Elvis Dumervil is a dynamic complementary rusher opposite him. Watch out for rookie defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, too. With Manning and the defense playing so well AND the luxury of home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, I expect this team to at least represent the conference in New Orleans.

Michael: Some will say that Denver's soft schedule to close the season is the biggest reason for their 11 game winning streak.  While that's a valid argument for sure, the reality is that there may not be a more complete team in the NFL than the Broncos.  Peyton Manning had one of his best statistical seasons fresh off his fourth neck surgery, and he made Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker two of the most effective receivers in the NFL (4th and 5th, respectively, by DYAR). The defense is led by outstanding sophomore linebacker Von Miller, a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, and best overall defensive player.  With the number 1 seed locked up, the Broncos will be well-rested for any obstacles in the playoffs.

#2 Seed: New England Patriots, 12-4
Matt: A couple weeks ago I probably would have gone with the Patriots to win it all, but after that they got beat by the 49ers on their home turf and struggled against the Jaguars. Even still, I think the Patriots are the #2 most likely team to win the Super Bowl. They still have Tom Brady and a team that's been turned upside down in terms of age over the last few years under Belichick. Nonetheless, I have a hard time seeing them get there while winning a game in Denver. That loss to the 49ers, which cost the Patriots the #1 seed, looks pretty big right now.

Drew: Despite throwing two interceptions at Jacksonville in Week 16, Tom Brady has played at a high level, throwing 34 touchdown passes against eight interceptions to lead the NFL's best offense -- and he's had to do it with a defense ranked 25th in the league and without (at times) one or both of his two lethal tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who have missed time with injuries. Both guys should be available for the playoffs, and while the defense tends to surrender big yardage totals through the air, it still is an opportunistic unit in terms of takeaways (New England is +17 in turnover ratio, third in the league). It's looking like the Patriots will have to play a game away from Foxborough to make a repeat trip to the Super Bowl this year; they haven't traveled for an AFC playoff game since the epic 2006 AFC Championship, which they lost playing Peyton Manning's Colts. Ironically, this year's potential road game would come against Manning's Broncos, and I don't think the Patriots are quite as complete a team as the Broncos are right now.

Michael: Ho-hum, another season, another first-round bye for the Patriots.  It's almost impossible to bet against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the playoffs, and at full strength this team is tough to beat. Stevan Ridley has given the dynamic offense another dimension with his powerful running, and there isn't a better tight end duo than Aarob Gronknandez.  With a healthy Gronk in the playoffs, the offense could be nigh unstoppable.  Rookie pass-rusher Chandler Jones has been solid in his first season, and Vince Wilfork still swallows up opposing running backs, giving the defense a much-needed lift after last year's abysmal season.  The biggest issue remains the secondary.  Deep passes have been killer to the Patriots all season, and QBs in the playoffs that excel at deep passing (Manning, Joe Flacco, RGIII) will look to exploit this weakness.  I can't see the Pats getting past Denver where Manning may light them up.

#3 Seed: Houston Texans, 12-4
Matt: The Texans looked like they had the #1 seed in the bag before they got their asses blown off by the Patriots. After that they went into a bit of a tailspin. Despite the Texans' great defense and running game; I've never been much of a believer. Brady and Rodgers both showed that the defense can be carved up by great QBs, and the Texans have two of them in the playoffs in their conference. The 3-seed isn't a bad spot to be in, but being in the same conference as Manning and Brady is.

Drew: The Texans, once viewed as the NFL's best team this season, are absolutely limping into the postseason, having lost three of their last four games to blow the top seed in the AFC. Matt Schaub came up small in that span, throwing one touchdown pass to three interceptions. While Schaub posts Pro Bowl numbers within the context of the Texans offense -- particularly when the run game is clicking (allows for play-action and bootlegs) -- he doesn't appear to have the elite winning upside of AFC rivals Brady and Manning. Houston's defensive play of late should give folks pause as well. While J.J. Watt has been an absolute beast in countless different ways and should win Defensive Player of the Year, the Texans have struggled against the pass, and not just against the great QBs Matt mentioned. They also let Chad Henne and Jake Locker go wild through the air in the second half of 2012, and given the overall talent on defense, I'm not sure why they did. As well as GM Rick Smith has built the Texans, their ceiling in these playoffs looks like one win.

Michael:  The Texans' annual second-half meltdown came a little later than usual this season, but it is in full force right now.  Houston is 1-3 in their last four games, ultimately costing them the #1 overall seed, and relegating them to the 3 spot.  Questions about Matt "Cotton" Schaub's big-game performance remain after throwing two interceptions in the season finale, and that kind of play won't help much if the Texans fall behind early and need to abandon the ground game.  Also, the defense- once lauded as the best in the AFC- has been lacking as of late, giving up big yardage and touchdowns to this guy, of all people.  Still, with game-changers like DE J.J. (s)Watt and RB Arian Foster, Houston has plenty of solid weapons in their arsenal- it's just that the whole team isn't nearly as scary as they were 5 weeks ago.

#4 Seed: Baltimore Ravens, 10-6
Matt: The Ravens were a hot preseason favorite, but I was really never sure why. The defense isn't as good as it used to be, and the offense under Flacco has never been amazing. All in all this is an okayish NFL team that doesn't belong anywhere past the divisional round, no matter what Fountain of Youth Lewis, Suggs, and Reed have found.

Drew: The Ravens' age on defense finally caught up to them this year. Even before his injury, Ray Lewis had been a liability against the run. Lewis announced Tuesday he will retire after the playoffs, so I'd expect emotions to be riding high in Baltimore when the Ravens play the Colts in the Wild Card round Sunday. Beyond any emotional spark, however, there's not much to like about the Ravens. Joe Flacco has regressed in 2012, routinely coming up small late in games. He might still keep his four-year streak of winning at least one playoff game intact for a fifth season, but that's about it. I give Baltimore virtually no chance of advancing beyond the divisional round this year.

Michael:  The guys pretty much summed up everything you need to know about the Ravens.  They are a pretty good, yet flawed team that essentially won the AFC North by default.  Joe Flacco can throw the deep ball absurdly well, but he is almost as streaky a player as Ryan Fitzpatrick.  The defense regressed greatly this year- losing emerging CB Ledarius Webb and missing LB Terrell Suggs for much of the season. Offensive Coordinator and Real Steel co-star Jim Caldwell has to utilize his best weapon- RB Ray Rice- to perfection in the playoffs to open up play-action for Flacco and Torrey Smith, or else it may be another disappointing year for Baltimore.

#5 Seed: Indianapolis Colts, 11-5
Matt: The Colts fluked their way into the playoffs. There's really no way around that. Nonetheless, here they are, playing the Ravens in the first round. Playing the Ravens is about as much luck of the draw as you can have in the first round, but I have a hard time seeing the Colts make it past the second round. They don't have a great defense, and the offense really isn't that great, either. I'm quite amazed that the Colts won 11 games, but one can dream, right?

Drew: The Colts are the feel-good story of the 2012 NFL season. A lot of people will attribute Indy's improbable run to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth to the purpose with which the club played in support of their coach, Chuck Pagano, who missed most of the season while successfully battling leukemia. While the Colts did post a 3-2 mark against this year's playoff squads, which includes an exclamatory comeback win against Green Bay in their first game without Pagano and a Week 17 victory against division rival Houston to welcome back Pagano and knock the Texans out of the No. 1 seed in the AFC, most of Indy's wins this year have come against sub-.500 teams with poor QB play. Still, Andrew Luck's seven game-winning drives can't be ignored (two came against two playoff teams), but neither can the oft-abysmal play of his offensive line. The defense hasn't been good overall, but they do still have Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and Vontae Davis has started to make plays of late. The Colts could upset the Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday, but that likely would be as far as they'd get.

Michael:  26th in total defense.  31st in defensive DVOA.  -30 point differential. -12 turnover differential.  These numbers don't exactly scream "Playoffs!," but somehow, the Colts have fought their way to Lombardi's Promised Land despite the stats.  As good as Andrew Luck has been, there are still plenty of flaws on this team, namely the packaged Swiss cheese that is the O-Line, and a secondary that starts Cassius Vaughn.  Still, Indianapolis has rallied around the #Chuckstrong campaign, and plays well when the situation calls for it (See Luck to Hilton - 70 yards).  It may not be enough to top Manning or Brady, but there is a ton of fight in this team.

#6 Seed: Cincinnati Bengals, 10-6
Matt: The Bengals are another okayish team that's part of the "pack" in the AFC below the Patriots and Broncos. They'll all play each other and it should be the Patriots and the Broncos in the AFC title game. The Bengals do have a couple of nice defenders in Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson, but I don't think their offense is at a level necessary to go far in the playoffs.

Drew: As I explained in my preseason power rankings, the Bengals are a surprisingly complete football team. It's eye-opening to read the names on defense. Geno Atkins arguably has been the league's top defensive tackle, and Cincy also has big, athletic defensive ends and good linebackers. On the offensive side, A.J. Green is one of the premier wideouts in the NFL, and Andy Dalton has been solid if largely unspectacular. As I alluded to while discussing the Texans, I like complete rosters in the playoffs IF said complete rosters have elite QBs. We haven't seen Dalton establish himself as such a QB yet, and it's not likely to happen this year given the makeup of the playoff field (i.e. teams with Brady and Manning). I suppose it isn't out of the realm of possibility for the Bengals to win their Wild Card game at Houston (though I'd lean toward the Texans), but same song, new verse as the Texans, Ravens and Colts: nothing beyond the divisional round.

Michael:  The only team weirder than the Bengals this season may have been the Giants, but that's beside the point.  Spearheaded by Geno Atkins, the Bengals are 6th in total defense (10th by DVOA), and will look to shut down Arian Foster early.  Atkins was unbelievable this season, shattering Pro Football Focus's record for most QB pressures in a single season, and overall grade for a DT.  On offense, Andy Dalton has been serviceable in his second season, and has finally gotten over the AFC North hump by beating the Steelers.  Still, the ceiling for this team remains low in the postseason, as it remains to be seen whether or not Dalton can run with the big names at QB (seeing as how he lost to TJ Yates last season).

NFC
#1 Seed: Atlanta Falcons, 13-3
Matt: Somehow this team won 13 games despite not being all that great. Matt Ryan had a decent season and Mike Smith is a good coach, but Matt Ryan isn't a great QB and the Falcons don't have a great defense. Among all the teams that have home field advantage, the Falcons are the least likely to make their home field crowd happy.

Drew: The Falcons jumped out to an insurmountable lead in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC with an 8-0 start to the 2012 season. While Atlanta certainly deserves credit for that feat and for losing just three contests, I'm starting to wonder if the club really is only built to succeed in the regular season, as has been the common suspicion thanks to an 0-3 playoff mark thus far for Matt Ryan's Dirty Birds. The numbers this season would support such a claim; the Falcons are in the bottom half of the league on defense (and their top pass rusher, an already aging John Abraham, is hobbled with a recent injury), and they can't seem to run the ball consistently (near the bottom of the NFL with 87.3 yards per game). Atlanta already has blown one top seed with a one-and-done exit, so even while the Falcons have the 13-3 record and the Georgia Dome for the entirety of the NFC playoffs, they don't pass the eye test with as many flying colors as some of their fellow NFC squads do. In fact, the only way I see the Falcons advancing to the NFC Championship is if the Vikings somehow knock off the Packers at Lambeau and make it to Atlanta.

Michael:  Looking at Matt and Drew's posts, I think I may be more of a believer in the Falcons than either of them.  It's true that Atlanta's defense is very mediocre- in yards allowed.  But playmakers Sean Weatherspoon and Jonathan Babineaux have been incredibly opportunistic- culminating in Atlanta ranking fifth in turnover differential.  That is also helped by Matt Ryan's 32-14 TD:INT differential.  The biggest question remains about Matty Ice's playoff performance. He still has yet to win a single postseason game, despite routinely posting great numbers in the regular season.  Whether or not Atlanta advances is squarely on Ryan's shoulders.

#2 Seed: San Francisco 49ers, 11-5-1
Matt: If we were to roll the clock back on the NFL by about 20-30 years, the 49ers would be the hands-down favorites to win the Super Bowl. Their defense is dominant. They have a great running game. They got de-pantsed in Seattle, but I think you could write that off as a bit of an aberration when considering the rest of the season. However, we have the NFL of today, and the NFL of today necessitates a great QB if you want to win the Super Bowl. I don't think Kaepernick is the guy, and for that reason alone I'll write off the 49ers.

Drew: I'm not quite as ready as Matt is to write off Colin Kaepernick as a QB who can lead a team to the Super Bowl; he has shown flashes of excellence and command, though he still has plenty to prove. He played incredibly at New England, leading touchdown drives and displaying admirable deep-throwing ability, he also has struggled to produce points in multiple starts (13-point efforts in losses to St. Louis and Seattle). I like San Fran's chances at reaching the big game better with Kaepernick better than with Alex Smith, though, as Kaepernick potentially adds a bigger aerial dimension to an otherwise complete roster. The 49ers are about as throwback as a team can get with its running game and defense (though an injured Justin Smith hurts badly). They have the pass rush and run defense, and the secondary can take away top receiving options. I think the 49ers are a threat to reach the Super Bowl, though a possible divisional-round meeting with Green Bay could be troublesome.

Michael:  The 49ers are an interesting team. They have everything they need to be a Super Bowl-winning team personnel-wise, and have a resume of quality wins this season (Green Bay, New England, Chicago).  On the flipside, they also failed to beat the Rams twice, had their lunch handed to them by New York (Giants), and got plastered by playoff-bound Seattle.  Their success hinges on the health of the criminally underrated Justin Smith.  When he is healthy, the defense is ferocious and nearly unblockable.  When he isn't, Aldon Smith doesn't get a sack.

#3 Seed: Green Bay Packers, 11-5
Matt: It's strange that we have to get all the way to the #3 seed in the NFC before we finally find a team that I think can win the Super Bowl, yet here we are. The Packers have had a better season than you might think. Take away their early season screw-job and a fluky loss to the Colts and they have the same record as the 49ers. The Packers' defense has been underrated, and Rodgers is still one of the top three QBs in the league. They play the Vikings for the second week in a row, but I think the Packers have a good chance to take the game in Lambeau.

Drew: Green Bay appears to be the safest bet in the NFC field to reach the Super Bowl, largely because of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has had an incredible 2012 campaign, throwing for 4,295 yards and 39 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. The Pack's defense is considerably improved from the league-worst unit of 2011, ranking 11th in the NFL with big help from Clay Matthews' 13 sacks. While Green Bay has to play on Wild Card weekend after being an early-season victim to the replacement refs' "Golden Taint" (thanks Di Lu), I still like its chances best of anyone in the NFC playoffs to reach the Super Bowl, and I also think they'll match up with the AFC representative the best.

Michael: If "GoldenGate" had been called correctly, the Packers wouldn't be playing Minnesota for the second week in a row.  However, here they are, royally screwed into the 3rd seed in the NFC.  With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers have as good a chance as any to get the Super Bowl, and the defense is much-improved from their disastrous season a year ago.  There are no real glaring flaws on this team, now that they have found a competent RB in DuJaun Harris, so there is reason to be thrilled in CheeseLand.  If we could go ahead and schedule a '9ers-Packers  game this postseason, that would be great.

#4 Seed: Washington Redskins, 10-6
Matt: A lot of people would have called the Redskins dead meat in week 10, when they were 3-6 and the Giants were 6-3. A few weeks later and the Giants are out of the playoffs and the Redskins are in on the back of a seven-game winning streak in which the Redskins were outgained in three contests. As amazing as that seven-game winning streak was, I'm still not a believer. The Redskins may win a playoff game or two, but I'm not a fan of their chances of going all the way.

Drew: The Redskins' improbable run to the NFC East title was remarkable, especially considering they didn't have Robert Griffin III for one of those victories. The dynamic rookie QB still deserves a lot of credit, not only for helping the 'Skins' read-option attack become the league's top rushing unit (169.3 yards per game) but also for his success as a passer. He's tossed 20 touchdowns against just five interceptions at 8.1 YPA, for a QB rating of 102.4. Despite RG III's Rookie of the Year-worthy campaign, I can't see the Redskins as a realistic Super Bowl contender this season. Their defense is woeful, and sooner or later they will run into an elite QB and/or a defense that can stop the read-option run. Washington isn't equipped to overcome at least its defense.

Michael:  The Redskins came out of nowhere to win the NFC East on a 7-game winning streak, led by stud rookies QB Bob Griffin the 3 and RB Alfred "Tickle me AlMo" Morris.  The 'Skins take the cake when it comes to running the football- their eye-popping 169.3 rushing yards per game is tops in the NFL.  Still, in the playoffs, it's all about the quarterback.  Washington's defense gives up 281.9 yards per game through the air, good for 30th in the league.  Also, can RGIII's body handle the bruising defense of Seattle?  I'm not so sure, and I think Washington will be one-and-done.

#5 Seed: Seattle Seahawks, 11-5
Matt: I'm a big fan of the Seahawks and actually like their Super Bowl chances better than the team that won their division. The advanced stats love them; the Seahawks are #1 in DVOA. They have the 4th best rated defense in the NFL. Although Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin get the most press among rookie QBs, Russell Wilson has arguably been better than both. On top of all that, the Seahawks have a good running game. That's championship stuff, and the Seahawks are a team to watch.

Drew: Seattle has been as hot as any team in the NFL late this season. Russell Wilson has the offense playing at a high level; he led the Seahawks to score at least 40 points in each contest of a recent three-game stretch (they hit 50 in two of them). Couple that with a stout defense, particularly along the line and in the secondary, as well as with Marshawn Lynch and the highly effective ground attack, and Seattle appears to have a team that can win playoff games. Having said that, I'm not entirely sure where to peg the Seahawks with regards to how far they'll go in this postseason. I could see them making a Super Bowl push, but I also could see them being one-and-done at Washington as Robert Griffin III strikes me as a QB more capable of "going off" than Wilson. Either way, this much is for sure: the Seahawks aren't a team to be taken lightly.

Michael:  The Seahawks are good.  Very good.  The story has been their defense and the "Legion of Boom" that is their secondary.  Richard Sherman was easily the best CB in the league this year, and his hard-hitting partner Brandon Browner will be back from a 4-game suspension.  Add in safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas and you have the most daunting secondary in the NFL.  On offense, Marshawn "Beef Moe" Lynch continues to be the most violent runner in the NFL, finishing third behind Adrian Peterson and AlMo in total yards.  Add in Russell "He's too short to play football" Wilson, who, statistically, was actually the best rookie QB this year, and you have a very complete team. Watch out.

#6 Seed: Minnesota Vikings, 10-6
Matt: The Vikings are much like the Wisconsin Badgers. They play decent defense, have serviceable QBs, but their main identity is very simple: they just run the ball over everyone. Much like the Wisconsin Badgers, this strategy may work well when playing most NFL teams in the regular season, but in the Rose Bowl (playoffs), it consistently fails.

Drew: Adrian Peterson had one of the best seasons by a running back in NFL history in 2012 -- and fresh off major reconstructive knee surgery at that. He wound up just nine yards short of Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2,105 rushing yards, but he still powered the Vikings to the playoffs just one season after the club went 3-13. Peterson scored just 13 total touchdowns, but his yardage and ridiculous six yards-per-carry average should garner him serious MVP consideration. All in all, Minnesota has written a nice turnaround story, thanks in large part to Peterson, but that story will end Saturday. While Christian Ponder played well last week at home to beat the Packers for a playoff berth, he simply is not a QB who can outplay Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau, no matter how many yards Peterson can rack up against the Packers (he's rushed for 210 and 199 yards in the teams' two meetings this season). Unfortunately for Vikings fans, their club will be one-and-done.

Michael:  Much like the Colts and 'Skins, the Vikings very much outplayed expectations this year, winning 10 games and beating out the Giants, Bears, and Cowboys for the final playoff spot.  When Christian Ponder plays mistake-free, he is a good complimentary weapon to Adrian Peterson, who this year proved he is actually not a human.  Defensively, Jared Allen continues to be fantastic, and rookie safety Harrison Smith was great in his first year.  Blair "the Blair Walsh project" Walsh was the best rookie special teamer this year, setting an NFL record with 10/10 FGs from beyond 50 yards.  Still, as always, the forefront of the postseason is the QB. Always.  And I don't think Ponder will be able to limit the turnovers against the onslaught that is the Seattle defense.

Predictions:
Matt:
Wild Card:
#3 Houston Texans over #6 Cincinnati Bengals
#5 Indianapolis Colts over #4 Baltimore Ravens
#3 Green Bay Packers over #6 Minnesota Vikings
#5 Seattle Seahawks over #4 Washington Redskins

Divisional:
#1 Denver Broncos over #5 Indianapolis Colts
#2 New England Patriots over #3 Houston Texans
#5 Seattle Seahawks over #1 Atlanta Falcons
#3 Green Bay Packers over #2 San Francisco 49ers

Conference Championships:
#1 Denver Broncos over #2 New England Patriots
#3 Green Bay Packers over #5 Seattle Seahawks

Super Bowl:
Denver Broncos over Green Bay Packers

Drew:
Wild Card:
#3 Houston Texans over #6 Cincinnati Bengals
#5 Indianapolis Colts over #4 Baltimore Ravens
#3 Green Bay Packers over #6 Minnesota Vikings
#4 Washington Redskins over #5 Seattle Seahawks

Divisional:
#1 Denver Broncos over #5 Indianapolis Colts
#2 New England Patriots over #3 Houston Texans
#4 Washington Redskins over #1 Atlanta Falcons
#3 Green Bay Packers over #2 San Francisco 49ers

Conference Championships:
#1 Denver Broncos over #2 New England Patriots
#3 Green Bay Packers over #4 Washington Redskins

Super Bowl:
Denver Broncos over Green Bay Packers

Michael:
Wild Card-
#3 Houston Texans over #6 Cincinnati Bengals
#5 Indianapolis Colts over #4 Baltimore Ravens
\#3 Green Bay Packers over #6 Minnesota Vikings
#5 Seattle Seahawks over #4 Washington Redskins

Divisional Round-
#1 Denver Broncos over #5 Indianapolis Colts
#2 New England Patriots over #3 Houston Texans
#1 Atlanta Falcons over #5 Seattle Seahawks
#2 San Francisco 49ers over #3 Green Bay Packers

Conference Championships-
#1 Denver Broncos over #2 New England Patriots
#2 San Francisco 49ers over #1 Atlanta Falcons

Super Bowl-
Denver Broncos over San Francisco 49ers

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